HELENA — Montana's two Catholic bishops, in letters read to congregations Sunday, criticized an Obama administration rule requiring religious schools and hospitals to provide free birth control coverage to employees through their health insurance plans in 2013.

Both the Most Rev. George Leo Thomas, bishop of Helena, and the Most Rev. Michael W. Warfel, bishop of Great Falls-Billings, strongly oppose the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rule.

The Montana bishops urged Catholics to continue to pray and fast that wisdom may triumph on the issue and justice will be restored. They asked church members to contact members of the Montana congressional delegation and ask them to support legislation to reverse the administration's position.

Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg urged the Obama administration to abandon the rule, while Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus said they support the rights of women to have access to receive the health care coverage that meets their needs.

Planned Parenthood of Montana spokeswoman Lindsay Love said the group believes that all women should have access to contraception because it increases women's access to preventive health care, while respecting religious freedom.

The state's two Catholic bishops sent separate letters to congregations critical of the rule.

"In so ruling, the administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty," Thomas wrote. "And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so)."

In his letter, Warfel wrote: "Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations in our country to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn't happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights. And yet, in mandating this action, the present administration has seriously weakened what we all hold near and dear as citizens of this land, i.e. religious freedom."

Thomas said the rule would require nearly all employers, including Catholic employers, to offer their employees health coverage "that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and other contraception."

"Almost all health insurers will be forced to include these "services' in the health policies they write," Thomas added. "And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as part of their policies.

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On Wednesday, Rehberg wrote U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and urged her to drop the rule.

"This order is government intrusion into the private lives of Americans under the guise of health care reform and infringes on the religious liberty of women and men of faith in direct opposition to the religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution," Rehberg said.

Rehberg, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Public health and Human Services, said the federal government "has no business dictating to private employers what their private insurance companies should and should not cover."

The Gazette State Bureau also sought comments from Tester and Baucus on the issue.

"Women should have access to full health care coverage, so they have the freedom to choose what suits their needs," Tester said.

Baucus spokeswoman Kate Downen said, "Max believes all women should have access to the very best health care coverage, and he'll continue to stand up for the rights of women and make sure they receive the health services they deserve."

Planned Parenthood's Love said, "The bottom line for Planned Parenthood as a reproductive health provider is that the birth control benefit increases access to preventive health care, while respecting religious freedom. All women should have access to contraceptive."

The current law, even with the recent federal decision, provides "a very expansive refusal exemption" that's used by more than 330,000 churches and houses of worship and their employees, she said.

"That's a good balance between respecting religious freedom for these organizations, while ensuring that women and families across the country have what is basic health care freedom."

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